A few years ago, three short musicals toured the country under the banner title “3hree” after being nursed by the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. Following suit, the Lyric Stage in Dallas has compiled four one-act musicals into “The Living End,” with the title referring to the relatively loose affiliation of these mostly comic shows to the theme of death. Overall it’s an appealing but far from thrilling collection, the individual pieces saturated with clever lyrics set to fairly generic music. Only one piece, the final offering, offers a dash of creative inspiration with its proficiency.
The first half of “The Living End” is comprised of two pieces with music by Jeff Blumenkrantz (“Urban Cowboy”). In the first, “Woman With Pocketbook,” everyday gal Doris Platt (Deborah Brown) finds herself at the Pearly Gates of heaven after a mahjong mishap. Everything seems dandy until she refuses to part with her beloved handbag. The angels have to call on some deceased relatives and, finally, the Almighty himself (Jonathan McCurry) to pry the purse away.
In “Precious Little Jewel,” the evening’s only period piece and its only dramatic entry, a devoted and obedient wife (Louise Mallard) believes her husband has died in a railroad accident. In a series of flashbacks set to music, she comes to recognize that she has long been trapped by his view of her as a prized possession.
Both of these Blumenkrantz pieces are crafted well enough, but they come off feeling like manufactured exercises. They have witty moments, particularly Doris’ ode to the contents of her pocketbook, and the casts deliver spunky performances (particularly Ada Lynn in a crowd-pleasing turn as Doris’ long-dead mum). But still the pieces feel charmless and, despite their brevity, overly extended.
After intermission, “The Living End” improves. In the O. Henry-inspired “The Ransom of Red Chief,” a low-life guy (Jerry Russell) becomes so indebted that he expects to be thrown into the Hudson River by the end of the day. As a last resort, he kidnaps a kid (Jordan Graf) in the hopes of raising enough ransom to save his skin. The twist? The kid is such a nightmare that the parents are reluctant to take him back.
It nearly works, but not quite. Despite pleasing moments, the bonding between the kid and the bum doesn’t quite develop, and this piece even more than the others requires director Cheryl Denson to rein in the tendency of her cast toward broadness rather than specificity. The musical is filled with laugh lines that don’t produce audience laughter, primarily because the characters aren’t human enough.
That said, this is certainly the most musically appealing of the shows, with an upbeat, often jazzy score by Brad Alexander. When young Jordan Graf breaks into the song “I’m Red Chief,” we experience some genuine tunefulness.
It would be hard to imagine a piece riddled with more clichés than the last entry, “The Life and Times of Joe Jefferson Benjamin Blow.” But, happily, that’s the point of it. It follows a hapless everyman named Joe Blow (Brian Patrick Hathaway) through the cliches of life: birth, adolescence, love, marriage, family, aging, death, ambition, regret, etc.
In just over 10 minutes, composer-lyricist Andy Monroe crams in 13 songs, including three reprises, such as “Don’t,” sung first by Joe’s mother and then later by his wife. It’s an exercise in efficient storytelling.
Sure, it’s still a trifle, but this piece works in a way the others simply don’t. Not because it isn’t wholly predictable, even sentimental and obvious; it’s all those things. It’s just that Monroe follows a spark of inspiration and playfully acknowledges the form itself by writing a short musical about how life’s too short.
Unlike the rest of “The Living End,” “Joe Jefferson Benjamin Blow” doesn’t feel labored, but genuine, and it moves so quickly that you can’t help wanting more.
With a short musical, that’s certainly a good thing.